'Acasa, My Home' Review: Life Lived in a Nature Reserve, Until It's Not

The Enache family lived 18 years in the abandoned wetlands of Bucharest. Now they're being forced out.

A still from Acasa, My Home by Radu Ciorniciuc, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Mircea Topoleanu.

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Radu Ciorniciuc’s stunningly intimate debut, Acasa, My Home, begins with a Shyamalanian revelation straight out of The Village, where a wily Romanian family living with reckless freedom in a seemingly remote wilderness is revealed to be at the center of the modern metropolis of Bucharest. Yet, what unfolds over the next hour and a half is more in the tragic vein of Debra Granik’s smart, socially critical drama Leave No Trace: a family is ripped from their home of 18 years at the behest of a society that has deemed their way of life unacceptable and then placed into a bureaucratic, alien civilization that they not only despise but are wholly ill-prepared for.

The Enache family, which consists of nine children ranging from toddlers to teenagers plus their world-hardened parents, have lived in a handmade shack on an island within the abandoned “Bucharest Delta” area for nearly two decades. For the most part, they’ve lived free from the daily grind of an increasingly fast-paced, interconnected world based on production and consumerism. Instead, the children roam through grassy meadows, swim amidst the many ponds, and wrestle with each other like a freewheeling wolf pack completely in tune with the wilderness that surrounds them.

A big part of the film’s allure is Ciorniciuc’s ability to intimately capture, an observational manner, the feeling of freedom with which the Enaches live their lives — the sun on their skin, the laughter of the children, the excitement of nature’s unpredictability. Unfortunately, this freedom comes with a cost: the film begins with a visit from social services who question why the children aren’t attending school and express concerns about the meager conditions in which the family lives.

The region that has long served as the Enache home — the wetlands of Văcărești — were originally an unfinished piece of urban water infrastructure abandoned in 1989 after the Romanian revolution and taken back by nature in the subsequent years to become one of Romania’s most biologically diverse ecosystems. Thanks to the persistence of activists, the area has been designated an official nature park and one of the world’s largest urban nature reserves. This event, depicted here with sojourning bicycle enthusiasts and an awkward ceremonial visit from Prince Charles himself, is the catalyst for the official relocation of the Enaches from their wilderness home into the urban jungle of state housing.

Miraculously, Cioniciuc, throughout this transition, is able to embed himself within the family unit as if kin himself — the title of the film almost implies as much. The camera is present through moments of leisure and key junctures of extreme duress, and his subjects, clearly socially awkward folks, never show their awareness of Cioniciuc’s presence. They seem to understand that their truth, deeply complicated as it may be, could potentially be used as narrative evidence in their favor. This unfortunate situation is deeply rooted in urban gentrification, where one family’s disregarded home can be reclaimed by government force when the benefits begin to weigh in its favor.

Yet, it’s clear that these children have absolutely been neglected not only a suitably safe housing situation but also a traditional education by parents unwilling to accept that a balance must be struck between undomesticated freedom and society’s rigid structure. They can not read. They lack basic social skills. They do not understand the repercussions of failing to abide by the laws of society. And now some of them are being forced to function as adults in the modern world while maintaining some form of connection to their family and their upbringing.

By remaining present at seemingly all times and gaining the family’s trust along the way, Cioniciuc has managed to chronicle a modern calamity, not unlike the meditative and serenely cast Honeyland, where the machinations of capitalism have encroached upon the most unlikely of places to smother out any sense of hope for folks living outside the lines of a “normal” life. In the end, Acasa, My Home becomes a beautifully crafted, heart-wrenchingly tragic, observational encapsulation of the shredding of one family’s way of life — from the organic way of nature to the harsh hustle of the streets.